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Korkut Ata Monument

Some 57km east of the turning to Baikonur along the main road between Kyzylorda and Aralsk, 16km west of the village of Zhosaly, stands an intriguing modern monument complex in honour of a figure named Korkut Ata, whose name is known throughout the Turkic world, but who in Kazakhstan is most closely associated with the musical instrument known as the kobyz and with the shamans who favoured it. Korkut Ata may possibly have been a real historical figure, living around the 8th or 9th century, but it is difficult now to extract historical fact from the legends and epic tales surrounding him. One of the most popular local legends is that as a young man he dreamt that he would live only to the age of 40. He therefore saddled up his beloved camel Zhelmaya, and went off in search of immortality. But wherever he went he found only groups of people digging his grave. He returned to the banks of the Syr Darya, where he sacrificed poor Zhelmaya, who clearly wasn't destined for immortality, using her skin in the making of a new musical instrument, the kobyz. He started to play, and while he did so, death, kept away by the beauty of the music, could not touch him. But exhaustion finally caused him to fall asleep, and at that moment death took the form of a snake, biting him.

The monument complex sits on the south side of the road, clearly visible from it. A paved road brings you to it. The whole complex, built in 1997, is shaped in plan in the form of a kobyz. You enter beneath a gate, with the director's office to your left, and to your right a small museum. The entrance to the latter also takes the shape of a kobyz, which clearly became something of an object of obsession for the designers of the place. The sound of the kobyz echoes through the museum, whose displays include one dimly lit somewhat cave-like room, with a golden kobyz illuminated in the centre. The displays offer information on the life of Korkut Ata, placing his birth at Zhankent, southwest of the town of Kazaly in the western part of Kyzylorda Region, and the place of his death just 2km from the complex, along the Syr Darya. There are of course plenty of kobyzes on display, including a mirrored version favoured by shamans.

There are copies on display in the museum of The Book of Dede Korkut, also known as The Book of Korkut Ata, the epic story of the Oguz Turks, revered across the Turkic world as a core text of the ethnic identity of the Turkic people, which was passed through the generations in oral form, before eventually being put to paper. Two 16th- century manuscripts are known, one from the Royal Library of Dresden, the other from the Vatican Library. The Soviet scholar V V Barthold identified the text as closest to the Azeri language, and believed that the book originated in the Caucasus. The version of Korkut Ata which appears from the book is that of a white-bearded elder, a sage bard, whose character links together the various tales in the book. In 2000, UNESCO supported celebrations commemorating the 1,300th anniversary of the book.

Back at the entrance, walk up the steps, proceeding, in effect, down the neck of the giant kobyz making up the complex. This brings you to a circular space, centred on a mosaic statue of a sheep. The edge of the circle is decorated with a greenish mosaic design which represents the snake which did for Korkut Ata. Further down, you pass under an arch, representing the bow being passed across the strings. You reach a platform, the main body of the instrument, with an amphitheatre in the middle, the venue for Korkut Ata-related events. Another snake-like mosaic surrounds it.

In the far left corner of the platform is a fine monument, an earlier (1980) construction which has been incorporated into the larger complex. This white- coloured concrete sculpture has four sides, each taking the form of a stylised, yes, kobyz, placed upside down. There is a hole in the centre of the chamber of each of the concrete kobyzes, leading to an arrangement of metal tubes which produces a kobyz-like sound when the wind is blowing with the right velocity. On the opposite far corner of the platform is a four-sided white concrete pyramid, known as the Pyramid of Wishes. Walk down a flight of steps to its base, circle it three times, and then pop inside to make a wish.

A track runs round the left-hand side of the modern complex. This leads to a reconstructed brick mausoleum on the top of a low hill 1km away. It is said to be the burial place of Aksakys, one of 40 girls attracted here by the enchanting kobyz- playing of Korkut Ata. 1he other 39 are supposed to have died of thirst in the desert, but Aksakys was sustained by milk from her goat, and managed to reach the spot where Korkut Ata played. The track continues beyond this mausoleum for a further few hundred metres, before giving way to a path. Follow the latter over the railway track towards the banks of the Syr Darya. You walk through a riparian graveyard. At the bank of the river is a gravestone, decorated with an image of a kobyz. Votive strips of cloth are tied to the bushes around this spot, which marks the approximate place where Korkut Ata is said to be buried. There was once a mausoleum, but this was destroyed by flooding of the Syr Darya.